2013 January – Intertwined fates of predator and prey

GHO having a mouse for dinner

In the Sonoran Desert, a tremendous variety of plants and animals create intricate ecological balances, and different types of predators may overlap in hunting the same prey. But overall, predation is population control. A dearth of hunters brings about swelling numbers of nibblers. Without interference, this triggers increased breeding and population growth on the part of predators until equilibrium is returned.

Biomass exerts great influence on the predator/prey association. The desert’s biannual rains bring two seasons of plants. A flush of new plant growth fuels a surge in the population of herbivores, which in turn feeds healthy numbers of hunters. In reverse, a lack of plant growth results in hunger, hardship and reduced breeding all around.

Many animals inhabit more than one link in the food chain. Quail hunt and peck for insects, while vulnerable to strikes by coyotes and raptors. The young of the fiercest hawk are at risk of predation by other birds or coyotes. Lizards blend invisibly into their surroundings while preying on insects with the sit-and-wait method. Reptiles in general have developed masterful adaptations as both hunter and hider.

Every bird of prey is a highly evolved hunter, with characteristic keen hearing, dazzling flight, powerful talons and miraculous eyesight. Owl feathers demonstrate impeccable design for swift silent flight, while the eyes of many raptors allow binocular vision. Other fascinating predation adaptations include Harris’s hawks that hunt cooperatively in some parts of their range, and peregrine falcons stooping at 200 miles per hour.

Also worthy of respect are the survival mechanisms employed by herbivores. Cottontail rabbits visit and feed their young only once or twice a day to avoid drawing attention to their vulnerable babies. A favorite on the menu of many, jackrabbits have eyes that scan for danger forward, backward and straight up all at once.

The complexity of the natural world is astounding, and appearances may be misleading. The Cooper’s hawk benefiting from the bounty of bird feeders and the rabbit in the clutches of a red-tailed hawk are equally essential strands in the marvelous web called life.

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